DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton
Dun dun. dun dun. dun dun dun dun dun dun. So begins Jaws, with the instantly recognizable, singularly ominous score from the prolific John Williams and one of the most chillingly memorable prologues in movie history. A girl ventures out into a moonlit ocean alone, and is attacked and finally dragged under by an unseen creature. What little remains of her later washes up on the beach to be found by Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the chief of police in the quiet beachside community of Amity Island. The image-conscious mayor (Murray Hamilton) insists it was a boating accident- tragic but routine- but soon marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is on the scene loudly declaring that they have a far more dangerous problem- a great white shark. It isn't long before the shark strikes again, and Brody and Hooper team up with crusty shark-hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to hunt down and kill the massive man-eater.
In the early stages of the story, Jaws works primarily on suspense-building, capturing the ambience of the Amity community, developing the characters, and dragging out the tension over when the shark will strike again. It accomplishes all of this effectively. The characters are not particularly complex, but they're nicely-developed and down-to-earth, and their interactions feel like they could be taking place between real people. The reactions of the townspeople feel credible rather than forced melodrama, and there are at least four genuinely suspenseful sequences. Undoubtedly, the fact that we don't get more than a glimpse of the shark until well into the film adds to the suspense. This was partly an economical decision- the mechanical shark constructed for the film was notoriously undependable and plagued the production with constant problems, but even if everything in the effects department had proceeded without a hitch, it would still have been an effective dramatic device. Consider the scene where a would-be shark killer tries to lure the beast with a slab of meat tied to the dock, only to have himself and part of the dock collapse into the water...and the dock turns around and moves through the water toward him, representing the shark unseen underneath. This is a creepier sight than a fin would have been. Despite being often- and sometimes unfairly- described as a "feel good" director, Spielberg doesn't pull many punches about who falls victim to the shark. Then approximately around its halfway mark, Brody and Hooper set out with Quint to kill the shark, and it turns into a more straightforward adventure story.
More than thirty years later, it is still fully possible to watch and enjoy Jaws. With the exception of the '70s clothing styles and the effects of the animatronic shark- which, while easily distinguishable from the real thing, isn't so terrible that it really detracts from the film- it seems to have aged remarkably little. This isn't a gorefest by any means, but the violence is sometimes surprisingly graphic. The characters are better-drawn than in most movies of this type, and the acting is solid. These seem like real people, not caricatures. Roy Scheider makes a solid, understated lead as the water-phobic Brody who has to confront his old fear and some new ones to protect the citizens of the town, and Richard Dreyfuss is just as good as the geeky shark expert Hooper. They're both fairly low-key, leaving the most flamboyant display to Robert Shaw, who's perfectly-cast (despite being the filmmakers' second choice after Lee Marvin turned down the role) as the eccentric, abrasive, but competent and fearless Quint. His character starts out as entertainingly over-the-top, a grizzled old sailor who's like a cross between Popeye and Captain Ahab, but Shaw fleshes him out in a few key scenes, adding an unexpected depth. His lengthy, haunting monologue late in the film is quite possibly the finest scene in the movie, and it doesn't even involve the shark. These three own the movie; adequate support comes from Lorraine Gary as Brody's wife and Murray Hamilton as the mayor who's more concerned with the tourist industry than the public's safety. This stock character type has been recycled countless times since. Jaws author Peter Benchley himself has a cameo as a reporter. The movie differs from his book in a few significant ways, and the screenplay by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb (who also appears in a small role) wisely omitted the more soap opera-like portions of the story, trimming it down to its essentials and fashioning a tighter and more straightforward suspense/adventure story. The characters of Quint and Hooper are sympathetic in the film, and one character who became shark food in the book is allowed to survive here.
Jaws was a smash hit at the time of its release, acclaimed by both critics and the public and nominated for Best Picture, and thirty years later it remains popular, holding a steady position on many critics' lists of the top hundred films of all time. Steven Spielberg, a young director on his second movie, was suddenly a recognized filmmaker. But it also had the unfortunate effect of whipping up a period of anti-shark hysteria, with so many sharks- most of which had never bothered humans- being senselessly slaughtered due to the fear produced by the film- or at least with that as an excuse- that Spielberg once commented that if he had foreseen that aspect of public reaction to the movie, he would not have made it. The absence of Jaws from the the world of film may have saved some relatively harmless sharks from the rampages of overzealous hunters and an easily frightened public. But without a doubt, it would als have robbed oaudiences the world over and the generations afterwards of one of the most finely-crafted thrillers ever made.
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